So it had to be a relief when the team hit a double-tap with its fourth-round pick, cornerback Cortez Allen out of the military college Citadel, a player that fills a definite need on the field and won't be a liability off of it.
Allen said he chose the Citadel over other small schools like Sam Houston and Cincinnati because the structure would be really good for his future.
"I felt that going in there would prepare me for life," the cornerback explained in a conference call shortly after Pittsburgh selected him. "I thought the opportunity granted me unlike any other school, and that's the choice I went with. I felt that if I worked hard enough I would get noticed playing football, and that's what happened."
Most of Allen's choices coming out of high school were small schools, as the fourth-round pick didn't play varsity football until his senior year, explaining that it was "just kinda the way it happened."
"I did try out for the team my freshman year but I ended up hurting my groin, so I didn't play that year," said Allen. "Sophomore year, I played basketball. My dad didn't want me playing two different sports at that time, so it was either one or the other. I came back my junior year and talked to the coach about playing varsity football. He told me that might be a little far ahead and so I was just going to have to play [junior varsity]; so I did that. Going into my senior year, I got put on the varsity team and ended up getting a starting position at cornerback. I've been a corner ever since."
The raw product of North Marion High School emerged from a four-year stint at The Citadel still raw relative to some of the other NFL hopefuls, a big reason why he slipped to the end of the fourth round.
"The Citadel is not a ‘football factory,'" offered defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, who is in his first season as a coach of a team he once played for. "A lot of the work that he gets is very limited in terms of football. I asked him when he came to visit us, ‘How much time do you get to work on your craft.' He said, ‘I don't get a lot of time because I have to do The Citadel stuff.'"
Lake noted that Allen being so raw could actually be viewed as a positive.
"This guy is really playing well, and he's not working on his craft that much because of his limited time," Lake said. "If he can spend a lot of time working on his craft I see a lot of upside for him. I think that is one of the reasons why we selected him."
It will be up to Lake to mold Allen, to teach him how to excel as a cornerback, and to get the best out of a player with great physical ability. At 6'1" and 196 lbs, Cortez boasts great size for a corner and immediately becomes one of the taller defensive backs on the team (behind 6'2" lead-dog Ike Taylor).
With a 4.45 on his pro day, Allen also brings a great deal of speed and athleticism to the secondary.
"I feel I'm very athletic," offered Allen. "My size and speed enables me to do a lot of different things so I can be versatile."
That versatility could be a boon for the young corner as he joins a group of cornerbacks that is high on quantity but a question mark in terms of quality.
Number-one option Ike Taylor is a key free agent and remains the only sure thing in a group that struggled last season. Both Bryant McFadden and William Gay were unable to solidify the spot across from Taylor. Behind those three is a host of young hopefuls drafted in the last few years: Keenan Lewis, Crezdon Butler, 2011 third-rounder Curtis Brown, and Allen.
Allen knows that his best chance to get on the field as soon as possible might involve Taylor taking a contract elsewhere, but The Citadel product is actually hoping that Ike will return to the team.
"If Ike's there, that will be a great opportunity for me to learn from a great veteran such as him," said Allen of Taylor, a small-school fourth-rounder himself. "I see that as a good opportunity."
Regardless of who stays, who goes, and what happens, Cortez's goal is to contribute as much as he can, as soon as he can, which includes special teams work. He's already had a chance to talk to Anthony Madison, a greybeard who returned to the team a season ago because of his work on the team's coverage units.
If Cortez can glean what he can from Madison, he could carve himself a niche as a special teamer, which could lead to a role as a nickel- or dime-back, which could in turn lead to Allen stabilizing a starting corner spot that has been a trouble area for his new professional team.